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COLLEGE FOOTBALL / WEEK 12

Bruin Defense Has a Ball Playing Take-Away

UCLA: Unit dominates with five fumble recoveries, two interceptions and six sacks.

November 22, 1998|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It wasn't exactly a gripping drama.

At the drop of a hat--and the football--UCLA sophomore cornerback Marques Anderson turned an R. Jay Soward catch into a sudden shift of momentum and set the tone for a very dropsy-turvy USC day.

"I saw that he was carrying it a little loose," Anderson said of Soward's short first-quarter reception in front of Anderson, who only two weeks ago regained the starting job he lost earlier this season.

"If you catch the ball, I'm going to try to get it out. The play's not over until the whistle blows, so even if you catch it, you have to fight me off if you want to keep it."

Anderson, remember, also saved the game and the season against Stanford last month when he stripped Cardinal receiver Jeff Allen late in the fourth quarter at the UCLA goal line.

"I had some personal issues earlier, but I've got my spot back and I really think the defense is on a roll now," Anderson said. "With R. Jay, we just decided to get in his face and see what happened."

Soward, who already was losing his grip on the ball as he gathered to make a move on Anderson, totally lost the handle when Anderson reached in for the ball, sending the ball bounding away into the hands of Bruin linebacker Tony White.

Seven plays later, UCLA scored its second touchdown, went ahead, 14-3, and the fumbles were just beginning.

Soward, limping on a bad ankle, never was a factor.

The UCLA defense dominated USC before 88,080 at the Rose Bowl on Saturday, but not with ferocious tackling or overpowering strength or warp-speed pursuit.

The Bruins, fueled by five lost Trojan fumbles and two interceptions, literally tore this game out of the Trojans' hands, along the way giving their most effective defensive performance of the season.

UCLA followed the bouncing ball to its eighth consecutive victory in this intra-city rivalry, 34-17.

"They were really careless with the ball," said redshirt freshman safety Ryan Nece, who recovered one of the fumbles and had one of UCLA's six sacks. "We were really surprised the way they were holding the ball, and the ball was slipping out."

"We were trying to get 11 men to the ball, and when you do that and play aggressively, you can get a team coughing the ball up a lot of times."

For the Bruin defenders, who endured roastings at the hands of Oregon, Stanford and Oregon State in recent weeks, this performance followed last week's relatively effective handling of Washington.

Does this mean the UCLA defense, young, error-prone and frequently in desperate need of Cade McNown comebacks, is developing into a national championship-caliber unit?

"No," defensive coordinator Nick Alliotti said with a shrug.

"We're young. Hopefully, we'll be good enough to get there. I probably shouldn't say that for the kids. . . . But we're not going to get any older in the next few weeks."

Alliotti, who was singled out for public criticism by Coach Bob Toledo after the near-loss to Oregon State, said that, instead of sticking to the basics, he called more blitzes and played more man-coverage against USC than he had all season.

Alliotti said that his young players--Anderson, Nece and redshirt freshman strong safety Jason Stephens (two fumble recoveries, one interception, one forced fumble)--are beginning to get comfortable and aggressive within his system.

"I guess it worked," Alliotti said. "It seems like the ball was coming out an awful lot. We were playing hard and fast, and when you do that, some good things are going to happen. . . . Hey, three weeks ago, they had me on the guillotine."

For Nece, the ability to tear loose the football from offenses is as big a statistic as any other.

"We've given up some yards and we've been put in some bad situations, but people should see that every time we've had to, we've made the play," Nece said.

"I think we've really showed that our defense can play at a higher level, that we can shut down an opponent and make an offense play into our hands. That's what we've done the last two weeks."

Anderson said the UCLA defensive backs naturally compared themselves to the veteran Trojan secondary players, and wanted to outplay Daylon McCutcheon & Co. on the field.

"We want that respect, and there's no way you can get respect unless you take it," Anderson said. "And we're gradually taking it.

"USC, they've got some guys who are really athletic. But you've got to have heart with that, you know what I mean?"

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